More than 80 billion pounds of food are wasted each year in the United States. For a team of graduate students in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, this number was a catalyst to do something differently.
Mario Guadalupe, Victor Cedeño, Vicnie Léandre and Devanshu Mehta – all current graduate students or recent alumni of the UF/IFAS department of food science and human nutrition (FSHN) – presented a new spin on a classic Dutch cookie at the recent the BakingTECH 2021 product development competition.
The event was part of the American Society of Baking’s annual conference, held virtually for the first time on Feb. 18. The competition pitted the UF team’s “Pokara Wafel” against the University of Minnesota team’s “ReToast” and the University of Wisconsin-Madison team’s “Banana Halos.”
The UF team included some experienced competitors, with three returning to the competition after a second-place 2020 finish. This year’s challenge was to create a baked good using upcycled ingredients.
“We got to create a product using ingredients that could be—or are—considered waste in other processes,” said Guadalupe, the UF team captain and one of the returning competitors.
The competition guidelines were released in September 2020, and Guadalupe and his team spent the next two months creating and naming their product.
The Pokara Process
“We outlined like 15 products from different countries like India and France,” Guadalupe said. “At the end, we came up with a stroopwafel idea because the mentor we had, Dr. Andrade, said wafers are a good way to deliver products to a community that does not have as much access to food.”
Juan Andrade Laborde, associate professor of global nutrition in the FSHN department, served as the team’s mentor and consultant throughout the product development process. Andrade’s long-term goal is to develop sustainable strategies to deliver better and adequate nutrition to low-income countries’ residents, making him an ideal team mentor.
Once the stroopwafel was selected as the product to reimagine, Guadalupe said the team started researching recipes to determine which upcycled ingredients they could use. Their first decision was to use okara flour, a byproduct of soy production processes, to make the wafer.
“When you use soy to make soymilk, you press the bean,” Guadalupe said, miming a grinding motion with imaginary pestle and mortar. “The dry fibers that are left from the pressed soybean is what you grind to get the [okara] flour.”
Usually, the leftover fibers from this process are used in animal feed, not for human consumption, although they are certainly both edible and nutritious. For the UF team, okara flour was the perfect ingredient to upcycle into something delicious for their stroopwafel product.
A Bite of Blueberry
The next step in the process was to determine how to differentiate the new product from current stroopwafels in the market, a criterion set by the competition.
“Stroopwafel is a great product with a great texture, but we wanted to focus more on the nutrition,” Guadalupe said. “Stroopwafel uses caramel, which has high sugar and fat. Vicnie came up with the awesome idea to use a jelly from fruit pomace.”
The team used pomace, the solid remains of the fruit, from blueberries that were being squeezed to make wine. When the juice is sent for the fermentation process, the pomace is usually discarded.
“Pomace is not a readily available product to get,” Guadalupe said. “We worked with a winery to get some, but when it arrived, we could not use it. It had already fermented.”
The team restarted with the winery and made sure to start refrigerating and freezing the pomace after the blueberries were squeezed, only thawing it when it was time to use in the test kitchen. The pomace was used to create a blueberry jelly in place of a traditional stroopwafel’s caramel.
The jelly was layered in between the upcycled wafers, and the Pokara Wafel was born.
The creation of the Pokara Wafel was a great milestone for the quartet, but the product was not quite competition-ready.
“Blueberries have a lot of antioxidants and a vibrant purple color, but you removed all the flavor to make the wine,” Guadalupe said. “Our pomace was bland.”
To enhance the flavor of the jelly, the team added natural ingredients for a better blueberry taste. Then, another issue arose.
“The biggest challenge we had this year was water migration,” Guadalupe said. “Normally, when you have two or more textures in a product, because of different water content, the textures will change because the water will move from ingredients with high water content to ingredients with low water content.”
In other words, the moisture from the new jelly was making the wafer soggy within a day.
“A normal stroopwafel has a nice, soft texture,” he said. “But this was just soggy, and it was happening so fast.”
The competition required all products to have a shelf life of at least 14 days at ambient temperature, so the soggy wafers needed a big fix.
Two of the team members worked on making the wafer less dry, so it wouldn’t absorb as much moisture so quickly. The other two members focused on replacing the sweeteners in the jelly to balance out the water content.
Eventually, the team developed a product that stood the soggy test of time.
The first deadline the team faced was submitting their preliminary proposal in November. Fourteen universities across the United States submitted proposals, but only three would be selected to present their product, virtually, in the finals.
The UF team was among the finalists announced in early December.
“We had to ship our product for judging this year because it was not in-person,” Guadalupe said. The contest was judged on their shipped product samples and a Shark Tank-style video pitch, recorded ahead of time.
The team ended the competition earning second place.
“It’s a good feeling,” Guadalupe said. “While we didn’t get first place, we are happy with the results.” He quickly added, with a smile, “Not satisfied, but happy.”
Guadalupe believes this kind of competition is an important aspect to food science and food engineering, and he encourages other students to try it.
“When I came here [to UF], it was supposed to be for a master’s and just be two years,” he said. “This is my fourth year
because I stayed for a Ph.D., and I am very happy to be able to take these opportunities and work with other people. Dr. MacIntosh was our first mentor for this kind of competition, and he helps our students not only focus on their product but look outside at what is happening in a food environment.”
Andrew MacIntosh is an assistant professor of food science in FSHN who focuses on the application of food engineering principles to fermentations.
“How lucky we are to be able to participate in this competition,” Guadalupe said. Beyond learning about innovative ways to make food sustainable, he believes he is walking away with great memories and friendships.